The Difference Between Tone and Voice

An Introduction to Tone

Have you ever read a paper that just didn't feel right somehow? Perhaps the language was awkward — either far too simple or overreaching in its complexity. Perhaps you thought it was too informal but had trouble determining why exactly you thought so.

These are problems of tone.

The tone of a paper is easy to discern but often difficult to explain. When we analyze a paper's structure, we know what we're looking for — a clear and logical development from introduction through careful arguments to some rousing conclusion. But the feel of a paper is a less tangible thing. The factors that influence our perception of tone are varied and subtle — so subtle that we may not always be aware of them.

Does a paper seem formal or informal? Approachable or esoteric and erudite? Does it seem like a primer on its subject or a complex analysis of advanced material? These are all questions about tone. They have to do with the way that a paper is written and the way it feels to read it.

As you begin a paper, one of your first tasks is to decide what the tone should be. Your tone will provide an interface between your arguments and your audience. How do you want the audience to feel about your paper — and how does the audience want to feel?

Luckily for us writers, the elements of tone are not entirely mysterious. The next few sections deal with the most common ways of manipulating tone so that you can achieve the right feeling for you and your audience. As you will see, word choice plays an especially large role in perceived tone. Likewise, your choice of personal pronouns such as I and you can have a marked effect on how formal your writing seems.

An Introduction to Voice

Voice is similar to tone in that it has to do with the audience's perception of your writing. Voice is that peculiar — sometimes very peculiar — quality that allows the audience to read a sentence and know that you wrote it.

In many writing classes, teachers emphasize the importance of "finding your own voice." But you can't simply find a voice; you have to develop one. Peculiarity is the hazard of this development. The more distinctive your writing becomes, the farther from the norms of writing it is likely to be. Yet those norms exist for a reason: if you deviate from them, you risk losing clarity, the real prize of good writers.

I don't want to discourage you from acquiring a distinctive voice. After all, deviations from the norm keep writing interesting — as long as they don't get in the way of the message.

If you are serious about exploring your voice, I have two recommendations. First, read more. Read voraciously, if possible. Reading expands your vocabulary and lets you experience the voices of others. Second, step back from your writing now and again. Ask yourself: Do any of your writing habits interfere with the clarity of your arguments? If so, train yourself to notice any troublesome habits so that you can avoid them.

Voice is a highly personal quality and has no grand set of rules associated with it. Just remember not to sacrifice clarity. Voice is your tool, not your master.

Tone and Voice

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